Noel Coward's early life is basis for Venom

Theatre Review
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Jane Austen wasn't one for pre-publication profiles and signing sessions. Her bevy of biographers have discovered to their chagrin that she ticked the "no publicity" box. When writing Emma, however, she did remark in a letter that "I'm going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will like." History and an immense readership have proved her wrong (not to mention a forthcoming BBC serialisation).

Playwright Phil Willmott is unaccustomed to being placed alongside "dear Jane", yet in his latest play Venom (below right), he too has spurned creating a sympathetic leading character. "I wanted to create a really good stage villain. Audiences love them." He should know. A couple of year ago he re-worked Othello from a new perspective, renaming it Iago. "Villains need ambition, sex and wit. I tried to find a contemporary character to work from but we don't have villains now, we have monsters."

Eventually, he hit upon the idea of using the early life of Noel Coward as the skeleton of the piece while creating a character of his own. Venom tells the tale of Clive Gosling who, like Coward, trades on talent, wit and personal magnetism. Gosling is also homosexual, so is this a thinly- disguised attack on Coward and his closeted life? After all, a script reader at the Royal Court sent the script back saying that the writer was deeply homophobic. Willmott finds the idea very funny. "There is enormous pressure to write "good" gay characters. Villains are very rare. Black theatre has managed it in the last few years but we haven't. You have responsibilities as a writer though and I've written loads of nice, fluffy gay characters. You know the type: caring, social working, Judy Garland- listening gay men. It's a relief to be able to move right away from that. I think the character is compelling. You may not like him but the play certainly wouldn't induce an audience to dislike all gays. It's not my intention to do a Coward-bashing, I'm a huge fan. Venom is a love letter, but it's written in poison."

`Venom' previews at the Drill Hall, WC1 (0171 -637 8270) from tonight and opens on Tuesday.